When we talk about table etiquette, we don't speak just about the rules of behaviour. Table etiquette also means mise en place, literally ‘putting in place’ - i.e. utensils. To properly set a formal table there are precise rules to be respected. The position of plates, cutlery, glasses and everything that every diner needs to have a formal dinner is designed so that everyone present at the table can eat in a comfortable and refined way.
What does the formal mise en place include?
- When it comes to formal equipment, the objects of the mise en place can be divided into four groups:
- Crockery: includes plates, consommé cups, side plates for bread;
- Linen: tablecloths, napkins;
- Cutlery: knives, forks, spoons and cutlery for fruit and sweets;
- Glasses: for water and wine
The first rule is comfort
It may seem unlikely, but the first rule for formal table setting is comfort. This only applies if you are right-handed, in fact the rules of formal mise en place are not very comfortable for left-handed people who, unfortunately, will have all the cutlery and glasses upside down.
The cutlery is arranged so that you can always keep the fork on the left and the knife on the right. The spoon for the consommé or soups (if you have a first course with broth) will be placed on the right, and the dessert or fruit cutlery must also be placed on top of the plate in the most comfortable direction. The same goes for glasses of water and wine. The cutlery for dishes must be arranged in order of use, always starting from the outside.
At the table, size matters
In formal equipment, dimensions and distances are very important. This applies to plates, glasses, napkins and everything that is needed for setting the table. The entire table setting, which goes from the napkin to the spoon, must measure 70-80 cm. The distance of the plate and cutlery from the edge of the table must be 2 cm.
How to set the table in a formal way
On a formal table placemats are usually necessary. Remember that they must contrast with the colour chosen for the tablecloth and if they are silver, the saucer for the bread must also be silver. The flat dish, the one for the second course, should be placed on top of the under plate. If you have a soup or consommé that requires a bowl, the soup plate should not be placed on top. The side plate with the bread should be positioned above the under plate, top left.
The forks should be placed to the left of the plate. Starting from the outside, you will have the starter fork, the one for the first course and the one for the second course closest to the plate. If some of your courses include fish, remember that there is a special fork and that it must be positioned according to the course.
Have you planned a broth or a soup? The serving spoon should be positioned to the right of the plate from the outermost part. Then, proceeding inwards, you will have the knife of the second course. If there are fish courses (fillets or steaks, not shellfish), the fish knife must be positioned between the spoon and the dish knife. We then move on to fruit and dessert cutlery. The latter must be positioned on the plate starting from the top in this order: dessert spoon, positioned with the handle facing right; dessert or fruit fork, with the handle facing left; and finally the fruit knife, with the handle facing right. Remember that only really useful cutlery should be inserted for the menu you will bring to the table. A final rule on cutlery is that of the butter knife - each diner must have his own and it must be placed on the bread plate.
All glasses are placed in the upper right corner, above knives and spoons. Here you can proceed in two ways: following the rule of convenience or not. In any case you won’t make any mistakes, rest assured. The water glass, usually a low tumbler, may be the outer one or may be positioned next to the dessert cutlery. The white wine and red wine glasses must be positioned next to each other starting from the right with the white wine one. At the top of the two wine glasses you can place the one for sparkling wine or sweet wine for dessert.
Tablecloth and napkin
For a formal dinner, forget the placemats or table runners. You need a tablecloth and it also needs to be perfectly ironed. The same goes for the napkin, which must then be placed to the left of the table setting, beyond the forks. The napkin must be positioned with the flaps open towards the outside, never towards the plate. You can fold it into a triangle or rectangle according to your taste, but at home you will never have to position it on the plate (which only happens in restaurants).
Finally, if you have a placeholder, you can place it between the bread plate and the fruit and dessert cutlery. If you are lucky enough to have salt and pepper shakers for a single place (they are rare and beautiful objects, but do not confuse them with the classics because these are really miniature), place them on top of the bread plate.